For the record, it’s a damn shame: Woody Guthrie’s populist messages, more than half a century removed, are as deeply relevant as they were in days of the Great Depression. Were he on the scene today, he would, no doubt, be an effective voice for the Occupy Movement. I can’t quite imagine Fox News televising Woody singing the pointedly satirical “I’m a Jolly Banker,” with such lyrics as:
“When your car you’re losin’, and sadly you’re cruisin’, I’m a jolly banker, jolly banker am I. I’ll come and foreclose, get your car and your clothes, Singin’ I’m a jolly banker, jolly banker am I.”
Though this adaptation by Peter Glazer is sourced entirely from Guthrie’s lyrics and writings, it feels less like a biography than it does a love letter signed on to by a cast of five whose affection and admiration bleeds through every number.
It’s that sincerity that makes this production so likeable. That and a director’s touch by Livia Genise that is consistently simple and elegant, marked by a pacing that’s pitched to an Oklahoma drawl. A complementary less-is-more set by Roy Von Rain, Jr. and Taja Watkins, provides the sense of having been lived in; coupled with projected period photographs on the rear screen, the set preserves sufficient space on stage to evoke the sense of the broad expanse of the land Woody traversed with his guitar strapped to his back.
Clearly, not all the actors who step into Woody’s shoes here are skilled technicians with the guitar, but they don’t have to be; their comfort in the respective roles provides ample compensation. Besides, they are backed by the skilled and supple string work of the “orchestra,” Jim Abdo on guitar, Mark Tuttle on fiddle and Peter Spring on upright bass, who work from a sweetly evocative ramshackle front porch.
Peter Wickliffe, portraying Woody as a younger man, gives a polished, well-measured and particularly unselfconscious performance; it’s the best work I’ve seen him do on this stage. Old pros Tami Marston and Scott Woolsey provide depth, while Tyler Ward and Kendra Taylor consistently paint the lyrics with a thoughtful passion. Taylor, who sinks deeply and softly into her various roles, exudes, when called for, the lyrical fragility of the folks Woody was drawn to and drew his inspiration from.
While tracking the troubadour’s life and travels through the Dust Bowl to the West Coast, to New York’s skid row Bowery, the performers seamlessly swap tunes, monologues and personas, trading licks like soulful pickers in a box care jam session.
They do their best work, though, as a close-knit ensemble, perfuming the auditorium with some purposeful and affecting rough-hewn harmonies.
A sing-along at times, “Woody Guthrie’s American Song,” which closes with a particularly meaningful rendition of “This Land is Your Land,” feels peculiarly patriotic. See this warm, welcoming and worthwhile production through Sept. 9.
As a Realtor in Ashland and Southern Oregon, I want to thank you in advance for your business and your referrals. What could be better than working with someone who shares your love of theatre? Call me at 541-778-8949.
You can find more of Clista’s work online at www.clistaspastels.com/. You can also view and purchase her paintings at the Rogue Gallery in Medford and at the Family Massage Center in Ashland throughout the summer.